Thursday, July 13, 2006

The cartoon roller coaster, 1986-2006

This purple mountain range is actually a graph of total employment at L.A. animation studios these past twenty years... It covers the unionized part of it, which was eighty to ninety percent of the entire 'toon enchilada (TV and feature) over most of this time-span. In 1985-86, we were at a high spot. Disney was chuffing along with 160-180 animation employees, Hanna-Barbera had several hundred, and Filmation had around 800 employees working on both television and feature projects. By 1989, job numbers had declined sharply. Filmation closed its doors. Mighty Hanna-Barbera was employing fewer people. Disney Feature, laboring mightily on "The Little Mermaid," still only employed a couple of hundred people, pretty much like it had done over the previous thirty years. (Walt had chopped his animation staff from 1200 down to 200 after "Sleeping Beauty" was completed.) Disney Television Animation was up and running but still small. The job situation bottomed out in early 1990, and then began a steady climb that lasted for almost a decade. Television production expanded during these years, with Cartoon Network growing out of Hanna-Barbera and Nicktoons blossoming from the cable channel Nickelodeon. Film Roman got started. Klasky-Csupo, producing "Rugrats" and "The Simpsons," grew from a tiny studio to a huge one. And of course, feature animation exploded. "The Little Mermaid" was followed by a string of Disney blockbusters, each raking in more money than the one before it (if we exclude "Rescuers Down Under"). Rival studios, which had studiously avoided getting into animation for years, now took the plunge -- with mostly lacklustre results. Fox, Warners, and some smaller studios all opened up animation facilities. And within a few years closed them. In 1999 the brightly-colored coaster descended once again. Disney Feature Animation, faced with rising costs and declining box office receipts, laid off half of its traditional animation staff (2001), then kissed the rest of them goodbye (2002). Television went into a tailspin. But by the second half of '04, things were again looking up. DreamWorks had followed its smash hit "Shrek" with more blockbusters, and became -- like Pixar -- a brand that had a wide audience. Disney began rebuilding staff to turn out its own CGI features, and had a solid though not stratospheric hit with "Chicken Little" (Fall, 2005). John Lasseter flew back into town from Emeryville and took over Disney Feature Animation in the midst of a digital 'toon boom that included Fox ("Ice Age 2"), DreamWorks ("Over the Hedge") and Pixar ("Cars"). And so here we are, again with rising employment levels that are absolutely the norm for the amusement park ride known as "Animation Employment."
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